Catch-22 is one of the most iconic American books and catch-phrases in our language.
I first read the book in 8th grade, it wasn’t my first choice, but Mrs. Wilbur challenged me to read a meaty novel, and this one was at home. So, Catch-22 it was. A massive book with non-linear structure and dream-like storytelling, Author Joseph Heller pushed my young ability to sort reality from Yossarian’s imagination.
The 1970 film, by director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Buck Henry (The Graduate) was met with very mixed reviews and box office indifference. It came out the same year as MASH and Patton, but came in a distant third. Catch-22 was also an extremely expensive film to make at the time.
Adapting the sprawling novel proved challenging. So many characters, a narrative structure that jumps back and forth and reality verses Yossarian’s dreams. All plot obstacles. And the violence, how to balance the realism with the zaniness. For the filmmakers, how to whittle the book into a sensible two-hour film.
More than 40 years after the film, Catch-22 found new life. George Clooney was approached with the project, as his production company was setup at Paramount, which held the film rights. It was made as a mini series to run on Hulu. Clooney direct two of the six segments, co-produced and played the role of Gen. Scheisskoft. I watched the series twice to fully absorb it. I liked it in a different way from the film. Over nearly five hours, and as the focus, this Yossarian is a more exact character and his emotions are very clear in the context of this adaption. That is a carefully worded statement because Heller’s Yossarian is not supposed to be easy to understand. We get his fear and trying to hang onto his sanity in a situation spinning undone. His motivations and reactions in this environment are layers of his character, and that is the mystery.
There are a few basic similarities between the book, film and mini series, but a lot of differences. The book is robust with stories, characters and plot devices. Filming the book requires pruning and shaping, which both of the screen projects did, with different results. The series has a broader canvass but not necessarily more shades to paint the story.
Joseph Heller showed up on the island of Corsica, in the Mediterranean as a 19 year old bombardier trainee, with the 340th Bomb Group. He started as a wing bombardier, eventually becoming the lead bombardier and flew 60 combat missions before going home, by boat, at his insistence. Heller used himself as the model for Yossarian and used his real life experiences for both characters and events in his 1961 book. As the bombardier, he sat in the nose of the B-24, surrounded by Plexiglas, separated by the rest of the crew. In the event the plane had to be ditched, the bombardier had to crawl through a narrow passage to get to the outer hatch. He was the only crewman who could not wear his parachute while on board, because of the confined space. If the plane was on fire and going down, the bombardier had to quickly crawl through the space with his parachute and then put it on, before jumping out a blazing airplane.
The main problem for the flyers were not hostile German fighter planes, it was the flak, the explosive bombs fired into the air and timed to explode at a determined altitude, as the bombers were approaching. The bombardier was the most vulnerable to flak flying through the air. These bombs send jagged metal speeding in all directions, easily penetrating plane skin, engines and the human body. Snowden, the rookie gunner in the book, was based on a real person who Heller tried to extend medical care to, flak having cut through the plane and the man’s midsection.
There is a very good book (The True Story of Catch-22) about Heller and the real people that became part of Catch-22, written by Patricia Chapman Meder, the daughter of a Bill Chapman, the leader of the Heller’s bomb group.
Catch-22 is Heller’s three-dimensional mosaic of the absurdity of war and American greed. Bomber crews were subject to the frequent increase in the number missions to be flown before they could be rotated home, and the higher the number the more rattled many of them became. You could be grounded if you were crazy, but to ask to be grounded meant you were sane, so you couldn’t be grounded. This was Yossarian’s nightmare.
I decided to deep-dive Catch-22 one weekend, watching the film and the mini-series, and reading Meder’s book. I found the film to come the closest in translating that moral chaos into a filmed story. Nichols’ film was dense, truncated, grim and total lunacy. It’s also a mess, a swirling narrative, confusing and over-the-top as a farce. The mini-series attempts to be a farce, yet with one foot squarely planted in reality. You are supposed to feel the pain and shake your head at the zaniness. It was a good effort, but I do not believe that both can effectively and honestly be done at the same time. It’s a razor-thin line between the two.
Heller said in an interview, every time he went up, he quickly realized they were trying to kill him and he wanted to go home. The mini-series is very good about showing the loss around Yossarian. Everyone he knows, everyone in his tent die or disappear. With each loss, it feels one step closer to his own death.
The funniest, but most frightening part of the book, film and mini-series was the story of Milo, the mess officer. Milo evolved from buying vegetables into forming a separate profit-driven enterprise, the Syndicate, that became its own air force, military police, brothel owner and international trader. Milo even contracted with the Germans to have the base bombed. Milo represented the worst of American greed. The military industrial complex and the profit of war. Heller wrote this grim story in 1961! Nearly 60 years later, this country has a permanent war economy.
When I first finished reading the book, I was just happy that I survived it. By far, it was the longest book I ever read, and certainly the most complex. I recall standing in front of the class giving a report and struggling to convey various themes of the book (which I barely understood). Yossarian is a difficult person to know, really know. Yossarian might be Heller, but we aren’t Heller. I can only imagine the fear of being in the nose of a B-24 as sharp metal, from every direction, speeds toward your plane. By this point of the war, there were no enemy fighter planes attacking, but the flak was dangerously effective. Sixty combat missions. Sixty opportunities to die from flak turning your body into a bloody mess, or trying to get out of a dying plane on fire before it explodes or hits the ground. At age 14, it’s difficult to convey the danger that kids, only a few year older than me, experienced each time their plane climbed into the sky over Italy.